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Turbulent Waters: Discovering Church

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Sis on Rocks

Sleepily nursing my eight-day-old daughter after sending my one- and three- year olds off to school, I considered that it was Wednesday. Not just any Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday. I felt something stir deep within my exhausted, still healing body: “I want to go to church today.” Not to preside, but to be present at the beginning of the spiritual and temporal accounting that is Lent. Only the day before, my pediatrician had specifically forbidden me to take my baby to church and risk exposing her to others’ infections. Dare I disregard her advice? Choosing the safer route, I reached out to my fellow young clergy women, seeking sermons they would be preaching that day. I read each sermon aloud to my daughter, each one eloquent and challenging in its own way. But with each sermon that I read, my soul yearned more deeply for church.

I didn’t long to be in my church. I didn’t need to say anything or to know anyone. I imagined sliding into a back pew in a church full of strangers. I imagined joining a long line of worshippers receiving the imposition of ashes. I imagined the ashy sign of the cross on my as-yet unbaptized daughter. Body and soul, I longed for this experience.

It dawned on me that I needed to mark the Lenten journey somehow. Exhausted, on maternity leave from my congregation, I wondered what I might do to stay connected in the rhythm of the church year. I settled on simplicity as my Lenten practice. I resolved to clear out and clean my house during the six weeks before Easter. Each morning I would set my intention to allow the external cleaning process to clear away my internal barriers to God. And each day after only a few minutes I found myself on the phone – my mother, my sister, my best friend, anyone who had time to talk – because again, I longed for community. I wanted to be with someone in the ritual.

Only three weeks later, my infant daughter was hospitalized with RSV and my resolve toward simplicity became a large-as-life reality. I ate. I slept. My husband and I traded child care for our older children and vigil for the baby. And I prayed. On the second night that my daughter was in the hospital, I realized again that I needed church. I reached out to a member of my congregation who has the gift of healing. I needed connection. I needed someone else’s strength, someone else’s prayers. My soul yearned for church.

The next week my daughter came home, and the unrelenting pace of life with young children caught up with me. My husband and I were more exhausted than ever, and now everything needed to be done – dishes, laundry, play time with the children, grocery shopping, hair cuts, school pictures, etc. My life felt out of control, chaotic. I couldn’t find energy to pray or space to sit in God’s presence. I wanted someplace that I could find solitude and solace. I longed for a break from the chaos of our lives. Again, I yearned for church.

The longer I was away from church, the more spiritually unmoored I felt. I became a raft floating on turbulent waters. At the beginning, it seemed I could almost touch the shore from my little raft. But in a few short weeks, I was so far out to sea that I couldn’t even see which direction to point myself. I still longed for something beyond what my family, friends, therapist, or I could provide. I just didn’t know which way to set out in search of what might reconnect me.

And then, my daughter was old enough to venture into the world. We attended church as a family to celebrate Easter. I was exhausted, and I moved through the ritual almost mindlessly. But when I came home, I found I was reconnected, grounded. My soul felt peace. We had experienced church.

Certainly, you find church in the rituals of worship, and indeed in gathering for worship at all. However, church is so much more than worship. It includes my singular experience of God paired with others’ experiences of God, somehow coming together in a communal experience of God. Church is the place where body meets body and soul meets soul. It is the place of absolute safety and security, where we each are defined by God’s love of us — and where we together come to completion in that love. Without all of these elements, church never becomes church. Perhaps this was Paul’s intention when he spoke of the community as the Body of Christ. This community, this church, brings us connection, grace, strength, healing, peace.

Easter Sunday night was a tough one. I was up with the baby more often than I was asleep. Yet somehow, even in this sleeplessness, I found a rest I had not felt in a long time. I still had a long way to go on my journey back to wholeness, but I no longer felt completely unmoored. The waters felt calmer; I knew which way to head. I felt direction, connection, peace.

I can meet God on a beautiful lakefront. I can meet God in personal Bible study and prayer. But I can’t meet you there. I now understand how it is significant that we do church together. Participating in ritual alongside other people connects us with God in an important and unique way. Whether it’s trudging the road to the cross during Lent, or celebrating the risen Christ in the Eucharist, or living our day-to-day chaotic lives, church invites us to do it in community. Others’ simple presence tells us we’re not alone; we’re not the only ones. And that makes all the difference.

 

 

The Liturgy of the Mandarin Orange: A Divorce Ceremony

71064921_1402685c56_zThe mandarin was Aurelia’s idea. The rest of the rituals had been pre-planned by me, but her spontaneity with the fruit helped. Let me explain. We were throwing a funeral for my marriage.

It seemed to me that my grief needed somewhere to go. My grief needed a container, a sacred space, a ritual embrace. This is what funerals do for the loved ones of the deceased, but no one throws you a wake when your marriage dies. So this was one of those instances where I decided to be a minister to myself and give my marriage a proper burial. I asked Aurelia to bear witness, that is, to preside as priest.

I started the day alone in the woods, writing a letter to my younger self, which said,

Dear Kyndall,

Looking at your favorite wedding gown photo, you almost seem like a different person, like I am looking at someone else. I guess if I could tell you anything, I would say, “Baby, it is going to be okay. You are going to get hurt again, keep getting hurt, but you cannot be faulted for loving. You are passionate and you are all in, and honey, that wasn’t wrong. I don’t think you made a mistake by getting married. You made a choice, just like you’re making a different choice now. You took a risk, and now you are facing the heartache that came from risking, but to take the risk wasn’t wrong or stupid. It was full of heart and yes, some youthful naïveté, some loving blindness, and even some desperate willing ignorance at times, but baby, you were doing your damn best at love and forgiveness and mended trust, and that is nothing you ever need to be ashamed of.

You were willing to love every inch of a broken man, and that was an okay thing to do, even if it didn’t work. Even though your love didn’t win him over or heal him or fix him in the end. Now it is time to give up your hope that he will change, hand it to God or to whoever, but it isn’t your burden anymore, to try and make him okay. You are released.

Love,
Your Slightly Wiser Self

 

Next I wrote the goodbye letter to the marriage. This letter was tougher to write: “I’ve never had anything this close to me die…when I die, I’d prefer one of those biodegradable caskets so that eventually my body returns to the dust, where it can one day provide nourishment to the trees.” And so as I thought about my deceased marriage, I said to it, “I want to plant you into the soil of my becoming. I want to bury you with the fallen leaves and the rotting wood and the smelly manure, and I want to trust that you have nutrients to provide me, even in your painful stench. I want to integrate my past into my future. I want to make you sacred ground with my reverence and my intentional watering. I want to learn all your lessons.”

After the letter writing, Aurelia joined me. We sat by the river and I read her some of my darkest poems and journal entries. That way someone could bear witness to the pain. She said some words appropriate to the pain, but also hopeful, like a good minister would. I had gathered a pile of sticks beside me, and then I hurled them, one-by-one, into the water and named what I needed to let go of. Again, she listened.

We needed some comic relief, so Aurelia spontaneously turned our snack into a liturgy too (like a good minister might), such that as we peeled off the skin of the mandarin, we were praying too. It was lighthearted but genuine.

Next we moved to hope. This was symbolized by our hiking up to the top of a hill. Once we reached the top, Aurelia pulled out a candle and lit it as a tiny, nonverbal way to say, “God is here.”

I wrote new vows to myself.

We prayed some faltering prayers. Aurelia read out loud to me letter after letter from my friends and family, all of them saying exactly why they felt hope for me. I think in the New Testament, they call this the laying on of hands, though it was just me and Aurelia up there on the mountain top.

After that we began the descent. We headed back down to regular life with all its challenges where we discovered my car battery had died in the parking lot. A helpful transgender stranger gave my car a jump, and then Aurelia and I headed for a gluttonous lunch to wrap it all up, which I believe the Bible calls feasting.

And now here I am, more than a year past divorce, past the day of ritual goodbye, and while it didn’t fix my sadness to hold a funeral, it widened my capacity to heal. It provided a place for my grief to go. It helped me move in the direction of hope, which is what a ceremony is meant to do.

To my minister friends, I would say this, no matter how tough it gets, never stop being a minister to yourself, and don’t forget to tell your friends when you need a priest.

 

 

 

 

 

Fulfilling the Baptismal Promises

Before I was ordained, I spent time as a seminarian intern and youth minister in a total of seven congregations.  The jobs of baptismal preparation and of talking to parents about how to raise Christian children, often fell to me.  In order to have something to put in people’s hands, that would sum up the most important aspects of what it means to make and fulfill the baptismal promises, I wrote up a short list, with explanations.

I wish I could say that as a result of receiving this, every family I ever prepared for baptism became regular, committed church members! Unfortunately, it’s not that easy – and, of course, nothing substitutes for a good, in-person pastoral relationship.  But I still believe that the list offered here covers the basics.  Quotations and page number references are from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

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When we bring our children to baptism, we vow to “be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life.” (BCP 302)  This is a tall order, especially in a materialistic, violent, sex-obsessed society like ours.  Here are a few ways to go about it.

  • Become regular members of the church.  The church is uniquely suited to be the “village” that it takes to raise a child.  Its members vow during the baptismal service to do “all in their power to support” the candidates in their life in Christ.  Fellow church members can do anything from sitting with a squirming child during the service so parents can have a little peace, to being Sunday School and youth group leaders, to becoming special friends and mentors to children as they grow.  If nothing else, they show children that their parents are not alone in trying to live as Christians.

 

  • Begin some kind of ritual at home.  You don’t have to rearrange your entire home life, but deciding to take one or more nights a week to have a family dinner, light candles, and pray together can make a peaceful center to a hectic family life.  The family that prays together, stays together.  Prayers don’t have to be long, and you don’t have to make them up; there are many beautiful prayers in the Prayer Book (814-841).  Read and discuss Scripture together, or tell each other what you are thankful for and what you wish for.  Observe the church year with an Advent wreath, Lenten disciplines or offerings, and Easter eggs.  Light your child’s baptismal candle on the anniversary of their baptism.

 

  • Set an example – consciously.  When you do volunteer work, give money to charity, treat an annoying relative with compassion, refuse to buy the products of companies that abuse human rights or the environment, or make another decision motivated by morality or faith, your children will notice.  You can explain to them what you’re doing, and why, without bragging:  “I’m doing this because this is what Christians do.”

 

  • Answer questions honestly.  Parents can get very nervous when their children ask questions about God, but children don’t need definitive answers as much as they need to know that it’s OK to ask the questions.  You don’t have to know all the answers; God is beyond the knowledge of adults and children alike.  Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” and continue the conversation.  You and your child can wonder about God and explore questions of faith together.  If you’re faced with a real stumper, you can always encourage your child to ask the priest!

 

  • Turn off the TV, and keep screen time to a minimum.  The scientific evidence is mounting that TV is simply bad for children in any but the most minimal amounts; and are the values of TV programs, and particularly commercials, really the ones we want our children to be absorbing?  TV wants to make us into pure consumers; is that what God wants?

 

  • Get outside with your kids.  Modern children are frequently cut off from the glory of God’s creation.  Take a walk in the woods every so often to reconnect with nature and get some exercise.  A sense of wonder may be the most valuable thing parents can transmit to their kids.

 

  • Lastly, and possibly most importantly, read to your children and provide them with quality children’s literature.  There is no substitute for stories and the life of the imagination for a child’s developing mind.  Children need to be able to encounter on their own terms (not in a preprogrammed “entertainment” format) stories that are subtle and challenging enough to become part of their ongoing imaginative life.  Start with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and anything by Tomie DePaola, and from age 4 or 5 onward, give them C. S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Winnie the Pooh, E. Nesbit, Lloyd Alexander, The Wind in the Willows, Brian Jacques, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken, Arthur Ransome, The Phantom Tollbooth, Watership Down, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin, and whatever else seems good at the public library.  (Harry Potter and The Hunger Games won’t hurt them, but won’t do much all by themselves, either.)  The three Christian virtues are faith, hope and charity:  to believe in the invisible, to go forward when all seems lost, and to love the unlovable.  A child nurtured on good kids’ books will know these three virtues intuitively, in his or her bones.  Nothing on TV comes close.

The prayer over the newly baptized (BCP 308) asks God to “give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”  Children nourished by caring parents and godparents who set an example; take their faith questions seriously; and provide simple home rituals, the love of a church community, judicious screentime restrictions, exposure to God’s creation, and plenty of good books, will have all of these things.

The Details of Advent

When I was a little girl, Advent was my absolute favorite time of year. It is true that part of the excitement had to do with the promise of gifts under the tree – but my love for the season went far beyond a desire for presents. Looking back, it is clear that Advent's top-ranking status in my personal pantheon of holidays had everything to do with a sense of wonder.

For me, decorating the Christmas tree was the best part – twinkling white lights peering out between crisp branches, delicate ornaments nestled in each bough, shimmering icicles glistening from every bristly tip… I loved our tree so much that my mother often discovered me curled underneath it, reading a book illuminated by those little white lights.

Beyond the tree, there were also those other wondrous Advent rituals: lighting candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday, singing the hymns that taught me my faith more than any Sunday school class, decorating the church during the hanging of the greens. Each moment, each activity added a new degree of anticipation as we moved towards Christmas Day. Finally, that swelling expectation reached a crescendo on Christmas Eve night as we sang Silent Night and raised our candles in the darkness of the sanctuary – Jesus would soon be born and I knew we were lighting the way.

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